Can We Break the Mold in Classical Music?

Is there a connection between the dire financial straits of many orchestras around the world and the mostly-traditional music they play? This question was brought home this week with news out of San Antonio, Texas, where the symphony closed its doors (though the city is trying to reopen them) and simultaneous news from Bachtrack releasing its annual classical music statistics.


I don’t pretend to know the inside story in San Antonio, but published reports indicate that private and public donations, and perhaps audience attendance, wasn’t enough to pay the bills. What I do know is what music the orchestra played. The spring schedule included: Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Elgar, Dvorak, Vivaldi, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, interspersed with assorted Pops and youth concerts. On the more modern front, the orchestra was scheduled to play Leonard Bernstein, it being his centenary, and a commendable smattering of living male composers (American, English and Russian), but no female composers, alive or dead. No composers of any ethnicity other than white were detected.


This tracks almost precisely the performance record of orchestras worldwide, with the exception that Bach is the most frequently performed composer around the world – Mozart and Beethoven come in 2nd and 3rd, followed by Brahms, Schubert and Tchaikovsky. 20th Century composers, all men, limp along distantly. There are no female composers in the top 100. There are 5 female conductors, up from zero a few years ago. Worldwide, Romantic Era music is the overwhelming majority, with 20th Century (mostly Russians) and Classical (Haydn, Handel, Vivaldi) vying for second.

By the way, opera and ballet are no different, with Die Zauberflote leading the opera world and Nutcracker the ballet world.


Perhaps audiences prefer music written a hundred years or more ago. These patrons fill the seats and make the donations.


Yet, I wonder what audiences are missing since many orchestras don’t give them a chance to find out. Maybe potential patrons stay at home because there is nothing new to learn at symphony hall. Other performing arts, not to mention the movies and TV, vie for their attention.


Orchestras need to be exciting, relevant and educational. They need to be embedded in their communities and communities in them. The shared experience of being in a concert hall has to be more than the same old same old. The experience has to be one talked about for days, or more, afterwards. I hope San Antonio doesn’t lose this precious resource. I hope the orchestra and its donors and the city take the chance to take a chance.  Music is vital in our lives; new music by new composers of every hue and gender should be given the chance to show it.